Caitlin Hayes and Megan Connolly relishing a return to international duty

Celtic placer and Bristol City stalwart experiencing different fortunes at club level but delighted to link up with tight-knit Republic squad

Ahead of the upcoming Nations League games against Hungary and Northern Ireland, Caitlin Hayes and Megan Connolly came in to the Republic of Ireland camp on Monday after wildly contrasting experiences in their latest outings for their clubs.

Hayes scored Celtic’s 12th goal in a 13-0 trouncing of a hapless Aberdeen, a result that leaves them just a point adrift of Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premier League.

Connolly’s only consolation in Bristol City’s 2-0 home defeat by Manchester United, one that left them pinned to the bottom of the WSL, was that she was named player of the match.

Both, though, are savouring returning to international duty after a near enough flawless Nations League campaign to date, promotion to the top tier of the competition already secured even before they take on Hungary in Tallaght on Friday and Northern Ireland in Belfast next Tuesday.

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For Hayes, who made her Irish debut back in September, there’s still a newness to it all.

“I’ve never been a part of an international set-up, so it’s weird leaving and then coming back and seeing people who are actually really happy to see you.”

“At your club, everything kind of becomes monotonous and grainy, the day to day life grinds you down. Whereas here, you walk in to a room and the actual joy on people’s faces . . . ‘ah, we’re all back together’. The hugs get a bit tighter the more camps you’ve been in, so I’m getting well loved. I still can’t believe I’m here. I’m just grateful for it.”

Connolly, meanwhile, is trying to come to terms with how quickly 2023 has flown by.

“With the amount of games we’ve played with our clubs and in the Nations League, the World Cup feels like years ago. But getting to the World Cup was amazing, we built that for years, the foundation is there, now we’re trying to add layers.”

“In every campaign, we’re trying to progress, and this year has been good. Four wins from four in the Nations League, hopefully we’ll end it with two more and next year we can try and qualify for the Euros.”

Despite the opposition in this campaign being nowhere near the quality of what the team faced at the World Cup, for Connolly, it’s all about keeping up standards.

“We have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, we’ve got great foundations over the years and have progressed as a team, and we want to continue doing that. We want to keep building on what we’ve built so far.”

Hayes admits that being part of the squad still leaves her suffering a “slight impostor syndrome”.

“I feel like the dork in front of the cool kids,” she laughs.

But in her four appearances to date, the 28-year-old has looked a heck of an addition to the Irish defence, particularly at a stage when its three mainstays – Louise Quinn (33), Niamh Fahey (36) and Diane Caldwell (35) – are entering the closing stages of their respective careers.

“I still feel new and I don’t know at what point that wears off,” she says.

Soon enough, probably.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times